To start the process, individuals should check with their local court clerk to find out where their small claims complaint should be filed: most states require that they file suit in a small claims court in the county wherein which the party being sued actually resides (or has business headquarters), rather than the one in which the plaintiff resides. Alternatively, some courts allow the suit to be filed in the district where the injury or event occurred (where “the cause of action arises”).
Generally, the complaint itself may be handwritten or prepared on a special form available from the court itself, with “fill in the blanks” ease-of-completion. If individuals are composing their own complaints, they need to make sure that it contains, at a minimum, the following:
- The plaintiff’s complete name and address
- The complete name and address of the party being sued
- The date of the injury or event which gives rise to the plaintiff’s claim
- A brief statement of facts relating to the injury or the event, and the role that the party being sued played in it
- The type of harm that was suffered by the plaintiff as a result of it
- The amount of damages or other remedy the plaintiff seeks are asking
Individuals must also check local law to ensure that the party being sued is properly served with the complaint. In many small claims courts, a court clerk will take care of “service of process,” but in many states, plaintiffs are responsible.
The court will notify plaintiffs of the date for their trials. Plaintiffs should request from the court clerk any available information that may help them with procedure (unless they have retained an attorney). Generally, plaintiffs are allowed to bring witnesses to testify in support of their claims. Some courts may accept affidavits (sworn statements) from persons who cannot appear in person; however, since the other side has no opportunity to “cross-examine” an absent witness, most courts will give only minor consideration to affidavits. Plaintiffs’ most important witnesses are themselves. Be prepared, be professional, and be brief (but to the point). They need to have extra copies of all documents, not only for the judge, but also for the opposing party. Remember that they will most likely be cross-examined not only on their testimony, but also and on the substance of any evidence they present.
Generally, there are no juries, and a judge or magistrate will decide the case. Often, the judgment is rendered immediately, and placed on the record. In other cases, individuals may receive written word of a decision and judgment within a few days. In some states, they may appeal a judgment, but not in all cases. The court is not responsible for collecting any judgment they have been awarded, but they can generally return to court for “post-judgment” proceedings if the other party fails to pay.